Kluane

A bit more of the Alaska Highway

~292km (~3206km total)

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August 13, 2014 

Haines Junction – Destruction Bay, ~105km

I woke up to rain, or rather, to evidence of rain. Large drops beaded on the fly surface, but nothing had leaked inside. Maybe my tent wasn’t leaking after all? I carefully exited my tent as to not disturb the 150-odd mosquitos that had taken residence in between the mesh and the fly. When I finally did remove the fly, the spectacle of the insects rising into to air reminded me of doves being released at the Colosseum in Rome.

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Climbing out of the large valley.

I was now on the Alaska Highway again. I spent the first 16 kilometres climbing out of the enormous valley that had given me such an amazing view the previous day. To the southwest lay the Saint Elias Mountains and the Kluane National Park & Reserve. I had originally thought that the Kluane Reserve was simply a game reserve (and indeed, the land immediate next to the road was a wildlife reserve for some parts of the highway), but it was also a mineral reserve, and the colours of the visible ranges spoke to an area of rich geographic diversity.

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The Saint Elias Mountain Range

The slopes facing me were mottled with yellows, browns, and greens. Veins of marble or marble-like minerals scored the surface, occasionally blotted out by bits of glacial ice formations. Clouds churned about the peaks before dispersing to the north. For a land completely absent of visible wildlife, it felt very active, a feeling perhaps encouraged by the gentle gusts of wind that introduced themselves as I kept climbing. Small tufts of grass jutted out of the increasingly dry soil, and shoulder shrubs barricaded the gangly spruce forests. Sometimes, the change in climate can be so gradual that I only notice it when I stop to reflect on particulars.

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Rich, pastel colours in the mountains.

Not wanting to risk a similar supply shortage to that on the Haines Highway, I had loaded up my panniers with what reasonable sustenance I could find in Haines Junction, which, with the absence of an actual grocery store, turned out to be pretty expensive. That said, I now felt completely comfortable with however little or however much progress I made, as I had food to last many days.

I eventually came up Kluane Lake, one of the most expansive vistas yet. The Saint Elias Mountains were now directly to the left of the highway, whereas the lake was to its immediate right, its still, turquoise waters giving off a near-perfect reflection of the surrounding terrain.

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Nearing Kluane Lake.

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Along Kluane Lake.

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Kluane Lake from another angle.

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Closing in on Sheep Mountain.

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Poor Daniel…he had been riding against my wonderful tailwind for at least a week, but he was still in good spirits. We met at a point on the road where a dangerous cross-wind threw the turbulence caused by passing RVs directly into us, pushing us away from the road, thankfully.

The wind was much stronger now, and the ride along Kluane Lake towards Destruction Bay required little effort. As I sat in their bar thinking about whether I might continue on a bit further or call it a day, I received an invitation to play rugby with some students working at a nearby Artic Institute Research Station. It seemed silly to subject my body to such punishment while on tour, but then I thought of what a great memory it would be, a serendipitous coinciding of wild adventure and familiar recreation.

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Wet, sandy rugby along the lake. I did actually play, for the record!

Thoroughly worked and exhausted, I came back to my bike and headed down the road to the nearest clearing sheltered from the still-persistent wind. If the weather continued like this, I would be practically freewheeling to the border of Alaska, a few days away.

August 14, 2014

Destruction Bay – Alaska Highway km #1796, ~112km

A nearby Canadian flag flapped viciously and pointed northwest. I smiled at my continuing good fortune with the weather since leaving Haines. I backtracked a little ways to the nearby restaurant and downed a little bit too much coffee before I left.

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The highest peaks in the St. Elias Range were still covered with snow.

The morning just zoomed by. I had toyed with the idea of making it all the way to Beaver Creek initially, since the road was so effortless and the tailwind was so strong, but locals in Destruction Bay had warned me that conditions along the highway were awful nearing Beaver Creek. Potholes became more frequent, and patches of unpaved road started to appear. Soon, the paved sections became unusual. Combine this with the fact that the wind had (rather suddenly) changed direction and that storm clouds were now moving in, and you have a recipe for rapid goal reevaluation.

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More Yukon glory.

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Interesting shapes in the spruce forest.

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Unfortunately, they were closed.

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Abandoned cabins along the Alaska Highway.

I looked at my Alaska Highway information sheet and saw that there was a bakery a mere six kilometres down the road. Thoughts of baked goods, coffee, and shelter filled my head. Just as the rain began to really come down, I arrived at the rest stop and realized that it was closed, and probably had been for quite some time (either that, or it aged rapidly upon closure). I made a mental note to send an angry email to the Haines Junction visitor’s centre about their out-of-date information sheet (NOTE: I never did this). Another five kilometres down the road was a Yukon Territorial Campground, so I headed there, hoping it would have a cooking shelter (at this point, I wasn’t aware of how standardized their campgrounds were). Sure enough, it did, and I was soon drying off and warming up next to a roaring stove.

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Wetlands

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One of the last good views of the St. Elias Mountains.

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An abrupt change in the weather.

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Rain closing in.

As the afternoon went on, the rain let up, and I thought again of my idea of getting to Beaver Creek. A family pulled in to use the restrooms, and we talked for a while about our respective travels. Before they left, they loaded me up with a huge plate of food, including homemade buns, far superior to the slowly aging day-olds I had been living off of since leaving Haines Junction.

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A generous donation from passing travellers.

My visit with the family had taken me into the early evening, so I decided that I would get to Beaver Creek the next day. I headed down the highway until I found a pullout with some flat space. I saw a porcupine on the side of the road, but that was the limit of my wildlife exposure. Well, that, and the mysterious splashes I kept hearing in the river nearby.

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Searching for a campsite at sunset.

August 16, 2014

Alaska Highway km #1796 – Beaver Creek, ~75km

I woke up to a frosty tent, the second one since several weeks ago between Watson Lake and Whitehorse. Unfortunately, I was in the shade, and so I couldn’t wait for the sun to dry out my tent before packing up.

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Crispy tent.

The splashing that I had heard the previous night was still going on, and curiosity got the best of me. After venturing down to several clearings by the water, I saw that it was beavers swimming back and forth from the shore to a dam. One less mystery left in the wilderness.

I rode conservatively this morning, taking care not to break a sweat, a good habit to begin forming, I figured. The road winded through a large wetland valley before breaking north through rolling hills of forest. The trees were looking smaller now, still primarily spruce and birch.

The warnings of the road conditions proved completely true. I had assumed that, as a cyclist, I would be able to dodge the worst of the damage, but I discovered a new foe: corrugated gravel, where the only manageable speed is “as slow as possible.” Construction picked up as well, and I was soon being smothered in dust by endless streams of dump trucks.

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Looking north. Somewhere (way) in the distance is the Top of the World Highway.

I came to a construction zone that didn’t allow cyclists to ride through. My options were either to wait until construction concluded for the day in about five hours, or take a ride in a pilot vehicle for 8km. The thought of waiting on the side of the road next to an active construction zone for the rest of the day did not appeal to me, so I sucked it up, unloaded my bike, and tossed everything in the back of the pick-up truck. The lady who gave me the ride was very friendly and obviously loved her job, driving back and forth all day along various construction projects. I guess a beautiful landscape can do that.

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Autumn is coming…

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The first traffic light that I’ve seen since Whitehorse, and it’s in the middle of nowhere!

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The scale of the forest diminished significantly in the wetlands.

Speaking of landscape, I think I can articulate what it is that moves or compels me about travelling through the land. It is when I feel that I can somehow comprehend the shape of the world through the road, both the big, sweeping gestures and the subtle imperfections. In these, I feel a little bit closer to understanding my relationship with the planet. I think this is why certain things move me like they do: distant road lines over distant hills, descents into expansive valleys. I can look into these scenes and imagine my little bike, vanishingly insignificant, a small black dot drifting along a filament of silver through a vast sea of green. I’ve read that our brains are incapable of comprehending the size of the universe, that, at a certain point, the large numbers cease to have any tangible meaning. I wonder, are we even capable of understanding the size of our own planet, of the hills on the horizon that form the boundaries of our comprehension, of the endless networks of rivers, creeks, streams, that transverse these boundaries, connecting unfathomably complex ecosystems?

I arrived in Beaver Creek and realized that I was completely exhausted. I needed a lifeline, so I took one. My parents had offered to treat me to exactly one night in a hotel at some point on my trip. It was a welcome change from my tent, especially since I hadn’t slept completely through the night is as long as I could remember. Thanks, family!

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The most western community in Canada, a real boom town with a population of 103 as of 2011.

I treated myself to spaghetti, and shortly after three others, in true roadhouse style, joined me at the table. One was an archaeologist working at a near by dig, and the others were an old adventurers from Washington state. We shared good conversation, and when I got up to pay for my food, I learned that Bob, one of the two adventurers, had covered the bill. The frequency of these generous acts, and their sheer unlikeliness – had I arrived thirty minutes later, they likely would have had a seat and we’d never have met – has convinced me that the world is friendlier, kinder, and more serendipitous than any news station would have you believe, and every time I come face to face with this realization, I feel a tremendous desire to pay it forward somehow, even though my means to do so are severely limited.

The hotel checkout time was “whenever,” so I planned on leaving well into the morning. There was a free campsite a mere 86km down the road. It was time for a warm, uninterrupted sleep!

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Course Correction

~242km (~2914km total)

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August 10, 2014

Skagway – Haines, ~6km 

Exhausted and slightly hungover, I headed out into Skagway early in the morning to find my bike and buy a ticket to Haines, AK. I had heard that Haines offered a significantly less tourist-centric experience than Skagway, as they only allowed one ship per week compared to Skagway’s 28. The rain was not letting up, unfortunate because I imagined the town, and the entire area in general, would have been beautiful in a way reminiscent of Stewart and Hyder.

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Waiting for the ferry to give us the go ahead to load. I haven’t had many issues with ferry services thus far, but I didn’t appreciate that my ticket, all of $30, included a $15 surcharge for “bicycle storage,” which was nothing more than some wall where I was instructed to lean my bike. Support straps weren’t even available, though it didn’t matter because the water ended up being quite calm.

The terminal was packed. The route to Haines was part of the Alaska Marine Highway, which took travellers south down the panhandle into various Alaskan coastal communities, and, should they choose to make a real cruise out of the experience, all the way to Bellingham, Washington (just south of Victoria, where I started). Being around all these people and hearing the prevalence of thick American accents, I felt worlds apart from The Yukon Territories and the rest of Canada.

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Serious business in the ferry terminal. Is this kind of severe signage really necessary?

The ferry was rain delayed. Well, it was more due to the fog. Did I mention it had been raining? Rain. The panhandle was really living up to its rainforest reputation. On board, I took full advantage of the complementary showers. I don’t mind being wet, as long as it’s on my own terms!

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A single cruise ship pokes its nose out from Skagway’s Harbour. As much as I don’t get the appeal of cruise ships, I felt bad for those hoping for an enjoyable, scenic coastal Alaskan experience.

I hastily pedalled into Haines and found a gazebo to make dinner underneath. Then my stove pump broke mid-meal preparation. After troubleshooting, I realized that it was beyond my current means to repair. The wind was picking up as well, and the gazebo was offering less shelter than it should have been. Haines had a comprehensive outdoors store, so scurried down a nearby trail until I found a suitable clearing for my tent. At this point, everything was getting wet, and I discovered that my tent had a small leak at the top of the vestibule on the seam. Good news comes all at once, it seems!

August 11, 2014

Haines – Mile 33 Lodge, ~55km

A coffee at the nearby Bamboo Restaurant quickly became pancakes and hash browns. The rain had let up for the moment, but the overcast sky promised otherwise. I hoped it would hold off at least until I could fix my stove and get some distance behind me.

Finally, around 11am, I hit the road. The ride out of Haines was as easy as can be. I was pedalling directly beside a river with a slight tailwind. The view would surely have been nice had it not been for the low clouds and fog. Occasionally, a small clearing in the fog, high in the sky, would reveal tiers of trees stacking upwards, reminding me that I was travelling through something grand. I guess it would have to do for now.

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A dreary ride out of Haines.

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“Honey, you’ll never guess what I paid for the reservation. There weren’t any photos of the place, but I just have a good feeling!”

Gradually, the road pulled away from the river. About 10km from the Mile 33 restaurant, the rain started coming down in buckets. What I initially planned on being a quick drying off/warming up break turned into a full-fledged meal.

I met four ladies who were on the first day of their Golden Circle tour. They were taking it easy, and this lodge was to be their first stop on the trip. They allowed me to use their cabin to dry my tent and sleeping bag, still wet from the previous evening, but as the weather kept getting worse, they extended their offer to allowing me to sleep on the floor of their cabin. “One of us snores,” they warned, but that hardly made the decision difficult.

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Foul weather friends.

We played various card games for the remainder of the evening. In the restaurant, they had gotten the forecast for Haines for the next few days. There was a slim chance that the weather would clear up soon. Looking out the window at the drops pelting down on the road, I wasn’t feeling optimistic, but stranger things had happened. One day at a time.

August 12, 2014

Mile 33 Lodge – Million Dollar Falls, ~100km

We were all up early. Gleaming through the windows was warm light. We looked outside and saw patches of blue sky. The forecast had changed from the previous ominous predictions, and the chance of rain was now at 50%, reducing to 10% later i n the day. My spirits immediately rose, and I packed up quickly and said goodbye to my generous hosts. Though they were nearly ready themselves and wouldn’t be leaving much later, I knew that our paces would be quite different.

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A magical morning along the Chilkat River.

The next 20 or so kilometres were uphill. I passed again through British Columbia before reaching the Yukon and the Haines Highway summit. Clouds still obstructed much of my view of the surrounding mountains, but every now and then a craggy peak would poke out of the sky. Near the summit, the trees disappeared completely, giving way to shrubs, bushes, and small collections of miscellaneous foliage. Despite the alpine climate, there was a relaxed and peaceful quality to the surrounding countryside.

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Climbing towards the Haines Summit.

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Taking a breather before the rain catches up.

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Low-lying clouds along the Haines Highway.

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Stormy weather, road work, and huge crags.

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Hanging out at the summit.

Just past the summit, I came across a green cabin that I’d heard about from other travellers. In fact, it was my intended destination the previous day before the weather deteriorated. Now, I decided I would have lunch there. “The Nadahini,” it was called, presumably named for the nearby Mountain peak bearing the same title, and it was full of character. There were guest books extending back many years, and each of the four interior walls was covered with messages from all kinds of restless wanderers. In one corner was a wood stove, and, on the opposite wall, there were two bunks. A shelf contained emergency candles and an assortment of canned foods. From the guest books, I got a sense of the people who’d been here previously: the weary, the vulnerable, the returning guests, the surprised vagabonds, the renovators. Each entry was a small glimpse into the lives of strangers. This shelter had been a lunch break for some and a life saver for others.

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The Nadahini.

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Cozy accommodation for two.

Just as I was leaving the cabin, my hosts from the previous evening rode up. As tempting as it was to stay and camp with them (they were done for the day), I wanted to get another 50km under my belt. The tailwind beckoned, and my food supplies surely wouldn’t last another two days to Haines Junction.

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The alpine boundary along the Haines Highway.

I think it’s time to give up the thought, “this is the best scenery I’ll ever see on this trip.” Every day is such a surprise. Today was no exception. Along the backbone of the St. Elias Mountain Range, I rode through a massive and shallow valley alongside a network of small and large streams all making their way north through huge fields of long grass. Each new turn in the road revealed more valleys and more peaks, each with a subtle uniqueness, enough to send my eyes searching through their details. Aside from the barren peaks, the rolling hills looked a lot like Ireland. These borderland ecosystems were almost unreal in their synthesis of seemingly disparate climates.

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Sitting, observing, absorbing.

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More along Haines Highway.

When I say that a landscape inspires, I’m not exactly sure what I mean. I suppose I mean that it causes a flourish of creativity (or, at least, the desire to be creative) within me. Today, I thought of poetry, and an imaginary conversation with no one in particular where my answers to questions, in their vague wistfulness, captured a bit of my present emotional state:

“Where are you?” “I don’t know.”

“Where are you going?” “I’m not sure.”

“When will you finish? “I haven’t decided.”

I guess I was one for three at the moment. I realized today (maybe “rediscovered” is a better word) that I am completely content in that uncertainty. In fact, I think I long for it. It must be one of the reasons that I don’t like having a computer on my bike to remind me of my exact position. To feel alone, displaced, removed from the regular flow of things, it must be a common goal of travellers around the world. Ironic that I get that feeling on a very deliberately created highway that is certainly not going to send me in the wrong direction anytime soon. Perhaps I am just slowly shedding layers of security. Maybe, in the future,  a remote and nearly traffic-free highway will not be enough, and I’ll no longer seek the security of the road.

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Verdant valleys in every direction (and storm clouds to keep me on my toes).

I made it to Million Dollar Falls, another Yukon Government campground, with time to spare. In the cooking shelter, I met a couple from Kamloops, BC who were travelling out of the back of their truck. They had been similarly seduced by the Yukon. We shared dinner and warmth next to the stove. Just as I was about to head off to camp somewhere off the highway, another camper offered to share his site with me.

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Million Dollar Falls.

Now, I had had this idea, of camping in a great big field stretching off towards foothills and mountains. I saw spots like this today, but I had always wanted to get a little bit further to ensure that I would make it to Haines Junction tomorrow. Sometimes, progress is important, and that’s ok. When I am presented with offers like these from complete strangers, I feel conflicted, most likely because I have romanticized the notion of pure self-sufficiency. If the last several days have taught me anything, it is that complete autonomy is not necessarily the be all and end all of bike touring, and the road ahead would be filled with opportunities to experience solitude more thoroughly. Tonight, I was so tired that this conflict lasted all of five seconds. Sometimes, what I am offered is what I need.

August 13, 2014

Million Dollar Falls – Haines Junction, ~90km

I woke up at 4am to the sound of rain. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to run out of my tent and cover my bike. When I got back to my bed, I realized that my sleeping pad had lost some pressure. I quickly re-inflated the pad and shoved this problem in the back of my mind until I could actually deal with it.

Around 9am, I was up again. My tent was so wet that I headed to the cooking shelter to dry it off. My campsite companions came by soon after to wish me well. I didn’t hit the road until around 11:30am, and, just as I was pulling out of the campground, the four ladies who I’d seen sporadically over the last couple of days pulled in. They were already done for the day, and I was just getting started!

The first three kilometres were uphill. It was very humid out, and rain again felt imminent, but the wind was strong and in my favour. I knew early on that I hadn’t eaten enough. I had half a bag of granola to last me until Haines Junction, 86km away. Oh, and some ramen if things got really desperate, but I really didn’t feel like pulling out my entire kitchen in the middle of the day.

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Probably an RV heading my way.

After nearly 40km, my stomach was getting grumbly. I was exhausted, but nearby rainclouds moving in my direction made the idea of stopping unappealing. There was a hostel not far off where I figured I’d be able to buy some food, so I held out for it.

After asking the owner what I could buy, I was GIVEN a huge free meal of salmon, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, and a garden salad. I was floored at his generosity. Leftovers, he said, but it felt like a fresh main dish.

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Restless horses in restless lands.

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It’s always amazing what you’ll find in the middle of nowhere.

This meal lasted me to Haines Junction, past more incredible scenery: Dezadeash Lake, Kathleen Lake, and the St. Elias Mountains, which were now to my left. The wind definitely played a role in how easy remainder of the ride was. In fact, the wind felt otherworldly. The silence was never silence. In the background was constant rustling, gusting, shimmering, as if nature was acting with consciousness. You know you’re in the good graces of the land when your spit keeps pace with you when it leaves your mouth.

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Dezadeash lake.

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Leaving Dezadeash Lake.

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Kathleen Lake.

Just before I arrived in Haines Junction, the land opened up into an overwhelmingly massive valley. Descending into the valley, I was at a complete loss for words. I felt like Eustace Clarence Scrubb when he was sucked into a painting in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

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Approaching the massive valley wherein lies Haines Junction.

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The final descent into Haines Junction.

After stopping by the visitor’s centre, I stopped by the local bakery. The bakery (and the visitor’s centre), was incredibly modern. In fact, the entire settlement felt contemporary. And yet there were no true grocery stores…I managed to score about eleven “day-old” buns from the bakery before reconnecting with the Alaska Highway on my way out of town. While I was doing my laundry at a motel, a local had told me about a great field for camping just a few kilometres down the road, but when I learned of the field’s equine occupation, I looked elsewhere.

It was now getting quite dark, and my definition as to what constituted a camping spot was rapidly expanding. Another five minutes of riding, and I spotted a relatively flat patch of grass next to the highway. While setting up my tent, I managed to attract every remaining mosquito within 100km. Tomorrow’s problem…